Nourishing Memories Chap 4: Conversion at Oxford
by Graham Kings
Date added: 13/06/2022
In one week my whole life was turned upside down.
On Sunday, January 20, 1974, as a first-year law student at Oxford, my faith in Jesus Christ came alive; on the Wednesday, I met the love of my life; and on the Friday, I joined a prayer group for God’s mission in the world.
I had come up to Oxford the previous term, having had a gap year in the British Army, and was a long way away from God, though — as always, everywhere, and for everyone — God was nearer to me than I had ever imagined.
The first person I met at dinner, at Hertford College, Oxford, at the beginning of Michaelmas Term in October 1973, was David Newman. He was reading English and was a committed Christian. He became a good friend and encouraged me to start reading the gospels again. The Jesus I met in the gospels matched the Jesus I saw in the lives of Christians in the college. But David did not push me into commitment. He wrote to me at Christmas and, at the beginning of the second term, asked if I would like to go to Evensong at the College Chapel.
I had had a difficult last few days, with less than encouraging results in College “mock exams” (“Principal’s Collections”). Roman Law, the focus of the previous term’s work, was interesting but not particularly fascinating.
I enjoyed the service, having sung in our parish choir as a young boy, but the decisive time came after formal dinner, in Hall. I went with David to the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU) meeting at the Northgate Hall, opposite the Union Debating Hall.
The evangelist was Dick Dowsett, a missionary serving in The Philippines. I sat in the gallery and heard that God longed for me as much as a husband loved his bride, and that — as in a marriage service — God had said, in commitment, “I do,” and was waiting for a response from me. I responded by echoing a prayer of giving my whole life back to God who had given me life.
The following Wednesday I attended the Hertford College Bible Study group in the rooms of David Newman and Jeremy Brewer. In particular I noted a beautiful student from Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), a college for women, who was wearing black jeans with red stitching. Alison Britton was reading mathematics at LMH, and together with two other students from there, Sue Green and Jane Bedford, came regularly to the Christian Union at Hertford College, then a college for men. Four months later, Ali and I started dating and, three years later, were married.
On the Friday evening I attended the prayer group of Operation Mobilization, an interdenominational mission agency active particularly in India and which sent students on one-month missions to Europe during the summer vacations.
In one week God brought together three sources of joy which abide: faith, love, and vocation; and the greatest of these, which binds them all together, is love.
So, what happened on that Sunday? Was I converted? Yes, but perhaps reconverted would be more appropriate, since I had made a commitment at Lee Abbey when I was 17. Did I invite Christ into my life? Yes, but Christ was present by his Spirit in my life since my baptism as a baby, and this presence was renewed at confirmation and re-enhanced at Lee Abbey.
After the early Sunday morning chapel service, led by the chaplain, Michael Chantry, I started worshipping at St. Aldates Church Oxford with Christian friends. I joined the weekly Beginners Group, led by the vicar, Keith de Berry, who, I discovered later, had served his curacy at St. Mary’s Church, Islington. Keith daringly and wisely ordered for everyone in the group a copy of the heavyweight New Bible Commentary Revised (IVP).
At the end of my second term I took the University Law Moderations exam and received an encouraging letter from my law tutor at Hertford, Roy Stuart, which I kept:
Despite my worries about the discrepancy between your essays and tutorial work on the one hand and your Collection results on the other, I am glad to say you not only passed Mods but did so very creditably.
During the Easter Vacation I went on the annual student working party from St. Aldates to Lee Abbey and enjoyed the fellowship and teaching throughout that week. Back home I worshipped at my parish church, St. Mary’s Chigwell, Essex, where I had sung in the choir, and on Tuesday evenings attended charismatic healing services at nearby St. Paul’s Hainault led by the vicar, Trevor Dearing. He prayed for me to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and I felt God’s peace. He also prayed for my mother and, over a period of a couple of weeks, she was healed of colitis, a complicated stomach illness, and her faith in Christ came alive. Amazing.
The following term, in my college room, I was reading what I now would call a weird, fundamentalist book, The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsay, and was so thankful to God for his salvation that I knelt down and, not finding the words to express myself in English, spoke in tongues.
On May 6, 1974, I bought an Oxford Revised Standard Bible, with intricately illuminating cross-references in the central column of each page and a concise concordance at the back, and soon had read through the whole book of Acts. I still have that tattered Bible, full of marginal notes, and remember the words of Cliff Richard’s song, “I Love”: “When the Bible is well used, the Devil is not amused.” Forty-four years later, I commissioned my former tutor, the Oxford Old Testament professor, John Barton, to write on his work updating that cross-reference Bible (OUP, 2003). “From Text to Text: Making the Cross-Reference Bible” was published on Fulcrum on May 30, 2018.
From Law to Theology
At the beginning of that summer Trinity Term, Oliver O’Donovan, a doctrine lecturer at the theological college, Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, led a Hertford Chapel retreat. I arranged to see him later that week to discuss whether to change subjects from law to theology after my first year, since I was reading so much theology in the evenings and was, even at such an early stage of new life in Christ, considering the possibility of ordination. He encouraged me but suggesting finishing my degree in law and then reading theology afterward, if I were accepted for ordination training.
During the summer vacation, however, after enjoying a month’s mission with Operation Mobilisation in Avignon, France, sharing the good news in the town square, I felt I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I decided to request to change subjects to theology. My father was furious. We had a difficult two weeks, and then he said, “I can’t understand your decision at all. I thought you wanted to be a lawyer. This will ruin you. Give me something to read to help me.” My anxiety began to turn into joy. The Good News translation of the New Testament had just been published, so I gave him a copy. He went on holiday with my mother and read the whole book in a week. The Word of God percolated through, and he accepted my vocational change.
Roy Stuart, an atheist, was very understanding of my new vocation and arranged for Peter Bide, chaplain of LMH, to be my new director of studies. Astonishingly, Essex County Council gave me an extra year’s grant, so I studied one year of law (and was never examined on my third term of law…) and three years of theology.
I did not tell Oliver O’Donovan that I had not taken his advice. However, a few weeks before I would have been taking law finals, in 1976, he wrote a postcard to me asking if I still was considering ordination, and would I like to meet up again for a discussion? I felt deeply moved by his remembering me, realizing the ongoing prayer manifested. We met and laughed and have been friends ever since. On September 25, 2005, he preached at St. Mary’s Islington:
Today Graham Kings, your vicar, marks five years of ministering the word here and 25 years of ordained ministry. … Graham’s ministry was a gift to Islington from Kenya and from Cambridge. One day he will be a gift from Islington to somewhere else. The stay may be long, it may be short. The main thing is, it must not cease to be, even while he sits here in the vicarage, a journey around the world. The whole Scriptures, the whole apostolic doctrine, the whole Christian life, the whole world Church must break in on Islington through his ministry.
I remember sitting in my stall, opposite the pulpit, and feeling the inspiring challenge of that holistic call. It is with me still. Oliver could not attend my consecration service as bishop in 2009, but he kindly typed up his notes from that Hertford Chapel retreat 35 years previously and posted them to me.
At home my best friend, Clive Weir, lived next door but one to us. He laughed at my change of subject and thought it was idiotic. In October 1974 he wrote to me in Oxford, from the University of Leeds where he was studying civil engineering, because he was very upset that his relationship with Marion, his fiancee, whom I knew, was possibly going to end. Could I come up to Leeds and see her in York?
When we arrived in York on October 20, I noticed that that evening there was a guest service at York Minster organized by the charismatic evangelist David Watson, vicar of St. Michael-Le-Belfrey, opposite the Minster. I still have the service leaflet. The preacher was David MacInnes, canon missioner of Birmingham Cathedral. The drama group at St. Michael’s acted out the reading of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Marion was unmoved, but Clive talked to the preacher afterward with many questions, who suggested he attend St. Michael’s in a week’s time. Clive did and gave his life to Christ that following Sunday. He has since hosted a church group in Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a civil engineer: he often preached and led a group of men who visited the men's prison in Riyadh. Later he completed a degree in theology at the London School of Theology and is now a lay preacher at his local church in Bishops Stortford.
My father was affected by my mother’s healing, his reading of the New Testament, and the change in Clive’s life. His own coming to faith took place that November at Hainault. In his memoir he wrote:
Graham telephoned from Oxford to ask if he could bring his friend Jeremy Brewer and two girls, Sue and Alison, to a meal at home and could I then chauffeur them to St Paul’s. The service was both dramatic and puzzling. On the following Tuesday evening both Kathleen and I went to the service at Hainault where we recognised a physical healing. Mrs Hedges, whom we knew for the past, had severe walking difficulties which prevented her visiting her daughter in America. And now she was walking without sticks! I myself went forward for a Billy Graham type blessing, and can only describe the experience as like an electric shock, which shook me from head to toe.
The following Tuesday my parents took my sister, Wendy, to St. Paul’s, and she went forward to give her life to Christ. I was overjoyed.
So, in one year God had brought to deep faith in Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit, myself, my parents, sister, and best friend. Thanks be to God for God’s generous grace, allure of love, and power of transformation.
Published originally on Covenant.